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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 81, December 1999

Hidden Displacement: Child Soldiers

Rev. Fr. Michael A. Blume, S.V.D.

[Italian summary, German summary]

This article concerns a form of forced displacement of young people that only occasionally reaches the attention of the media but which is a significant factor in the conflicts that make refugees. The problem can be illustrated with a personal experience. Three years ago I met a 20 year old Kurdish man, whom I will simple call Abdul (not his real name), together with several other Kurdish asylum-seekers. It was not particularly easy to communicate with him because of the language barrier and the need of a translator. In fact even his fellow Kurds had problems communicating because he spoke a dialect that was difficult for them. The conversation, however, was lively, punctuated by his confident voice and occasional gestures to point out his healed bullet and shrapnel wounds. This is his story:

Abdul came from a Kurdish village in the Middle East where he lived with his family until he was nine years old. That all ended when government planes bombed the village, destroying homes, including his own, in which his family had perished. From that moment he was on his own, orphaned and scarred in many ways. He then “went to the hills” and begin fighting first for one Kurdish faction and then for another. Ideologies did not matter. Important was to be fed, have some minimum shelter, and get wounds, the physical ones, healed. He never went to school nor had what could be called a normal childhood. That is how he lived for eleven years: fighting, shooting, and changing alliances. Finally in 1996 he had his chance to come to Europe. He paid a couple thousand dollars to a trafficker, got packed into a container that made the land journey by TIR from Turkey to Italy. Once in Italy, he found some fellow Kurds who got him contacts for applying for asylum. Rome, however, was a transit point. He hoped to travel to Germany where there is a large Kurdish community, among whom were some of his friends. He would eventually receive the modest financial help that the Italian government gives to people in such circumstances. From that he had ample funds for a train ticket to Germany.

Abdul’s story is a synthesis of the experience of so many boys and girls who had passed their childhood and adolescence as soldiers. He did not speak about the treatment he had received from the Kurdish commanders he fought for, but it would be safe to assume he knew the rigors of a harsh military training and abuse that we know from the cases of other child soldiers. In any case he had lost his childhood and the years he should have spent in his family and school, socializing with his peers, absorbing his own culture and religion, and preparing him for life, albeit a simple one. Now he was in Europe, scarcely able to communicate even with fellow Kurds, much less read or write, and with few social graces. If he would be granted refugee status, the process of integration into European society would always remain incomplete. How does a twenty year old go to first year primary school, learn a foreign language, and enter a culture he had only known in its electronic form on TV? If Germany or Italy would return him to his homeland, he would probably “disappear”.

1. The extent of the problem

Reports of the problem occasionally reach the press. A sampling from recent months indicates it is an extensive problem. The Bishop of Bondo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was recently reported as stating that 30% of the troops withdrawing from his area were between 14 and 15 years old.[1] Further north in Sierra Leone another report speaks of the release of rebel soldiers by the government, 57 boys, between nine and 17.[2] From Colombia comes another reports of a government military counter-offensive, in which most of the rebels killed were aged between nine and 14.[3]

The above are samplings of a problem that involves 300,000 children under 18 in 50 nations, who serve as “regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, spies, porters, cooks and sexual slaves-even suicide commandos”[4] Regarding the figures, we have to keep in mind that these 300,000 children affect the peace and security of thousands of other people. Furthermore they raise problems not only for the 50 countries where they are found but also for neighboring countries, into which the conflicts and the child soldiers can easily enter.

The International Labor Organization recently included “forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts” as one of the “worst forms of child labour” along with “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and false or compulsory labor.” A new ILO convention sets 18 as the minimum age for military service, and recently 174 member states of the ILO adopted a convention on the problem.[5] 

In addition, the practice of of using child combatants is a direct violation of the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and article 38 in particular, which sets 15 as the minimum age for recruitment and urges states to set the limit at 18. This is a form of forced displacement, often involving kidnapping and seizing children from homes, schools, sports fields, and frequently from refugee camps, which are warehouses of potential soldiers for all sides in conflicts. For the latter, their lives are marked by multiple displacements with all the consequences.

We will examine a few aspects of the phenomenon of child soldiers as an issue for the ChurchÂ’s mission of proclaiming the justice of the Kingdom. It needs to be furthermore a pastoral issue that focuses on the person of the child in an attempt to reintegrate him or her into a normal community. Finally we have to ask what can be done to reduce the problem.

2. Issues of justice

The existence of child soldiers is partly due to the proliferation of small arms. Modern technology puts a destructive power into the hands of infants that has never been known before in history.

a. A culture of weaponry

One of the great multi-national industries of the world is in arms production. In some countries, advertisements for hand guns can be found in daily newspapers. Often they use a language so extolling their beauty and effectiveness that one easily forgets that guns are intended to maim and kill people. There are airline companies that use their captive film-watching audience to advertise national arms industries. In one that I personally saw, the voice of the presenter had the friendly and confident tone that one might hear on the radio offering a package tour to the Holy Land or a new toy for children. The effect is to “sanitize” products with lethal purposes, making them seem “user-friendly” and therefore “people-friendly.”

The technology of miniaturization is also part of the arms trade: Small is beautiful. That is why the AK-47 assault gun and the M-16 rifle can turn a nine year old into a lethal weapon. Children have been used in war since time immemorial, but as drummers, porters, cooks, messengers, spies, and sex objects. But only recently have weapons become small enough to make any little David a Goliath-killer. When swords were the main weapons available, a ten year old was no match for a 20 year old seasoned soldier. Today a ten year old can fire 600 rounds per minutes into his target. The M-16 is even called the “transistor radio” of weapons.

Light arms are also cheap, solidly constructed and durable. An AK-47 costs between US$10 and US$30 and is a lifetime investment; they last, passed on from generation to generation When many people own them-55 million have been produced since 1947-they become part of the culture, like tricycles and wristwatches.

b. A violation of international law

The recruitment and use of child soldiers is also an issue of human rights as recognized in international law and many national and regional legal instruments. In particular it violates practically every article of an international convention signed by more than 190 states, the CRC. Some examples of violations of childrenÂ’s rights, in addition to the minimum recruiting age, will suffice: the forced separation of children from parents (art. 9.1), the lack of freedom of expression of the child (art. 13.1), arbitrary interference in private family life (art. 16), non-protection of the refugee child (art. 22.1), non-provision of rights to health care (art. 24), denial of the right to education (art. 28 and 29), denial of rest leisure and cultural rights (art. 31).[6]

In addition it is a violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949 on the safety of civilians during war, a violation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (especially arts. 3, 25-27), and a whole range of other declarations and covenants[7]

3. Pastoral Issues

In addition to the social research done on the child soldier phenomenon, it is important to understand the person behind the guns. This is important to be Church in the midst of this form of displacement both as it affects child soldiers themselves and the communities in which they might be integrated.

a. The vulnerable person of the child soldier

The majority of child soldiers were vulnerable people before they were recruited.[8] They were street children, orphans, unaccompanied refugee minors, children doing farming chores in areas of conflict, foreigners, including refugee children. Deprived of family, socialization in schools, identity documents, and education, they are the prime candidates either for being kidnapped or being forcibly rounded up (press ganged).[9] Children with stronger family connections, identity documents, and schooling are less likely to be taken. If taken by a national army, they sometimes do obtain release if they can prove their age and have family members who follow up the missing children.

They are also people who sometimes voluntarily seek out regular or irregular military forces. Some register as a requirement of national law or social pressure. Others, especially insurgents, join for revenge or hoped for economic advantages. For others military life has an attraction with its symbols of power, like weapons, and of prestige, like uniforms, insignia, and sometimes even pay. I remember meeting a family in their home just outside Monrovia, Liberia in May 1995. The father pointed to his two adolescent sons and told me how often he had told them not to join the rebels.

b. The training of child soldiers

Generally speaking, training of child soldiers is no different from that of older recruits. Military basic training is already something rough and even degrading, even in “democratic” countries. Children suffer the same thing, sometimes even worse, especially when they are brutalized to harden them to battle and atrocities. The effects of this on underdeveloped bodies and psyches are not to be underestimated either. Regarding food and medical treatment, research indicates the tendency for children to be less cared for since they are the lowest in rank on the military ladder. Younger children are also less able to care for themselves regarding basic hygiene, first aid, and preventable diseases. The result is more permanent injuries and even death.

Furthermore there is evidence that the insurgent groups do at times kill child recruits when they cannot keep up with the training or who try to escape. There are, however some exceptions, as in the Philippines, where rebels are known to take better care of children, evaluate their physical situation, allow them time for play and even education.

But dehumanizing treatment is more the rule. There are many cases of children who are made to act as executioners and tortures, even to the point of killing parents or close relatives as part of initiation rites, which then render them radically displaced, cut off from their families. There are also many reports of children getting drugs and/or alcohol before battle as well as being subjected to sexual abuse, especially in the case of girls.

c. The use of child soldiers

Child soldiers usually start out in support roles, e.g., carrying supplies and ammunition, injured rebels, looting for food, doing guard duty, and being messengers or spies. The last two tasks are more risky since those caught by the enemy are usually summarily executed.

Sooner or later, however, they all end up in combat and regular military tasks. While still young, some operations, such as suicide missions, are special domains of adolescents, who generally have less of a sense of danger, which accounts for high death rates. Some are even be religiously motivated by the hope of martyrdom. High death rates also result from tactics involving human wave attacks, often under the influence of alcohol and drugs. One eye witness report states: “ There were a lot of boys rushing in the field, screaming like banshees when they rushed the barbed wire . . . It seemed at first they were immortal or impervious or something, because we shot at them but they just kept coming.”[10]

The treatment of girls is much the same as that of boys although they also take on some particular such as sexual partners or house maids of higher officers.

Neglect of duty by child soldiers usually merits the same treatment as for older ones. There are, however, many recorded cases of severe beatings and even summary executions. Severe punishments are also linked with child suicides.

d. consequences

As a result of their vulnerability and inexperience, child soldiers suffer a variety of injuries, often permanent. There are many reports of injured children being abandoned in the bush or even shot by their own companions. The most common disabilities, however, are the loss of hearing, loss of limbs, and blindness. These are all the more tragic for many countries lack provision for the care of such soldiers. Some capitals abound with disabled soldiers begging on the streets. Such is there reward for serving their country. The situation of permanently injured rebels is even more desperate though they are less visible in capitals.

Capture of child soldiers also results in a variety of treatments. There are records of summary executions, abusive interrogations as well as torture, rape, death threats, and imprisonment for long terms. Others are induced into the army that captured them. Some are also released to rehabilitation programs.[11]

A further details should not be ignored either: Regular armies generally have fixed terms of military service; insurgent groups do not. Their child soldiers normally have no way to leave and try to start a normal life other than the risky escape and surrender.

Child soldiers have suffered from a life completely out of order with anything that can be considered normal human development. Childhood is lost, with all the devastating consequences in the present and for the future. These consequences also affect the countries where they live as well as their social order and security, for unintegrated child soldiers of today form the criminal gangs of tomorrow.

There is also evidence that the use of child soldiers prolongs conflicts. When older soldier are insufficient in number, there are generally many young people who can be forced into service. There is furthermore evidence that the longer a conflict continues, the younger is the age of the soldiers. In a study done of soldiers in Afghanistan at the first stage of the conflict, about 10% were under 14, and 16-18% between 16 and 18. A survey done at a later stage showed that 19% were under 14, and 26% between 16 and 18. That means 45% were underage[12] (CIS 45). An increasing number of child soldiers decreases security, destroys education and health projects, and decreases prospects for peace. Experience also shows that military life and mentality is hardly a preparation for statesmanship and negotiating peace. 

e. Rehabilitation

For child soldiers fortunate enough to leave or escape the military, the most important rehabilitation method is to reinserted them into their families and communities. The support of Church communities can be very important for this process. That usually includes an activity like education and technical training. I have personally seen child soldiers in schools of refugee communities, in skills training centers, in apprenticeships as auto mechanics and tailors. The value of education as an attraction for child soldiers is also portrayed in pamphlets intended to induce them from army life, such as those published in Liberia.[13]

There are also programs that involve institutionalizing former child soldiers. I have also seen this kind of arrangement in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where strong young men were being taught the ABCÂ’s, elements of farming, and socialized behavior. But the process takes time and is not necessarily without problems, as witnessed by the most frequently treated injury in the institute, bloodied noses. Institutions then try to reunite the ex-combatants with families, get them technical training, jobs, etc. The latter can be difficult in a place like Sierra Leone, where they economy is in very poor condition. Another problem with institutions is that they are a storehouse of trained and battle-hardened troops that regular armies occasionally use to supply needed personnel.

f. Advocacy for prevention

Key in the prevention of recruitment of child soldiers is the health of civil society, the integration of all citizens into it, and especially the condition of its basic unit, the family. Handling the phenomenon of street children and unaccompanied foreign children is an important need. So is the general effort to strengthen society, especially the family, the rule of law, and political accountability. That includes pressing governments on the obligations they have assumed by signing the CRC. That effort also includes attention to bureaucratic details like the registration of birth and nationality of children (see CRC art. 7 and 8), the first legal defense against under-aged conscription.

Then we should not forget the challenge of shaping an alternate society, where the culture of war and violence recedes. These are all issues where the Church and its mission to promote justice and peace can offer special contributions.

3. Conclusion

The wider context of child soldiers is the involvement of children in war. The years between 1945 and 1996 witnessed more than 250 major wars, which killed 23 million people. The children victims of that time include two million dead, four million disabled, 12 million left homeless, one million separated from parents or orphaned, ten million psychologically traumatized. Child soldiers are among them. Behind the statistics are persons, whose dignity needs to be promoted. This like other works promoting peace is, according to the 1974 Synod of Bishops, is an integral part of the preaching of the gospel.

The tragedies of people like Abdul, and all the child soldiers he symbolizes, can be avoided. It is a question of political will to fulfill the international commitments publicly made by almost all nations of the world. That will has to come from the grass roots. All those involved in promoting justice and peace, particularly Church-related organizations, have an important task. This applies both to those in conflict zones or in countries neighboring them as well as in countries whose politics and economic might can positively influence states involved in conflicts and even insurgent groups. The twentieth century closes with a sad chapter about children in combat. May the next millennium see a change.

 [1]“Vescovo di Bondo: ‘La Chiesa chiamata ad essere voce profeticaÂ’, M.I.S.N.A, 3 August 1999 (available through
 [2]“Sierra Leone Force Releases Rebel Boy soldiers,” Reuters report of 14 August 1999.
 [3]“Colombia: FARC Hostages Released,” JRS Dispatches, 53, 17 July 1999.
 [4]Judith Miller and Paul Lewis, “Fighting to Save Children from Battle,” New York Times (internet version), 8 August 1999.
 [5]Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour” as reported in JRS Dispatches n. 54, 30 July 1999. 
 [6]The texts may be found in The Rights of the Child, Human Rights Fact Sheet no. 10 (Geneva, United Nations Centre for Human Rights, 1996); it is also available at the United Nations web site. 
 [7]It is sufficient to cite the introduction of the “Maputo Declaration on the Use of Children as Soldiers” of 22 April 1999: “Cape Town Principles and Best Practices on the Prevention of Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilisation and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa (27-30 April 1997), the Organization of African Unity/African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect Continental Conference on Children in Situations of Armed Conflict of June 1997, and Resolution 1659 (LXIV) on the Plight of African Children in Situations of Armed Conflict, adopted by the Council of Ministers of the OAU in July 1996, Yaounde, Cameroon; the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child [which]prohi­bits the recruitment and use as soldiers of children under 18 years of age; . . . the nationallegislation of the overwhelming majority of African States sets 18 years as the minimum age for military recruitment; . . . the Statute of the International Criminal Court that makes the conscripting or enlisting of children under the age of 15 years or using them to participate actively in hostilities a war crime.” The complete text is available at 
 [8]The research data on child soldiers throughout this article are drawn from Rachel Brett, Margaret McCallin and Rho­na OÂ’Shea, Children: The Invisible Soldiers: Report on the Participation of Children in Armed Conflicts and Internal Disturbances and Tensions for the United Nations Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (Geneva, Quaker United Nations Office and International Catholic child Bureau, 1996). Henceforth, CIS. 
 [9]See Donald G. McNeil Jr., “Press Gangs Keep Angola Government Supplied with Recruits,” The New York Times (internet edition), 20 January 1999. 
 [10]Cited by CIS p. 53. 
 [11]See “Blama Puts Down His Gun and Goes to School” (Monrovia, Center for Democratic Empowerment, 1994). This booklet, published in simple English and with many illustrations, was intended to encourage child soldiers in the Liberian civil war to put down their arms and surrender to the peace-keeping force, which is portrayed as treating them well and placing them in schools. 
 [12]CIS p. 45. 
 [13]See “Flomo Leaves the Bushes for the Classroom” (Monrovia, Center for Democratic Empowerment, 1994).

Uno sradicamento da non ignorare: i bambini soldato


Questo articolo offre una prospettiva pastorale circa una forma speciale di sradicamento forzato: quello costituito dal fenomeno dei bambini soldato. Nonostante i bambini nei millenni siano stati usati in diversi ruoli militari, la tecnologia delle armi moderne, in modo particolare quelle piccole, leggere, resistenti e potenti, ha permesso ai bambini di combattere come prima mai. Le stime correnti parlano di 300.000 ragazzi e ragazze al di sotto dei 18 anni di età arruolati in eserciti regolari o rivoluzionari in 50 paesi. Tutto ciò naturalmente in violazione di numerosi accordi internazionali, compresa la Convenzione sui Diritti del Bambino, firmata da quasi tutti gli Stati.

Il reclutamento di bambini coinvolge innanzitutto i più vulnerabili: i bambini della strada, i minori non accompagnati, i bambini nei campi profughi e gli stranieri. Altri vengono prelevati dalle scuole, dalle zone di mercato e dalle assemblee religiose. Altri ancora vengono allettati da offerte di denaro e soprattutto da quel potere che le uniformi e le armi simboleggiano.

La formazione dei bambini di solito è simile a quella dei soldati adulti. La differenza sta negli effetti: corpo meno sviluppato e psiche più vulnerabile; casi di fatalità più frequenti di quelli che occorrono tra le truppe di adulti. Sebbene il ruolo dei ragazzi inizialmente possa espletarsi in attività di sostegno, alla fine li vede coinvolti in combattimenti, spesso in disumane ondate di attacco, in missioni suicide, e in attività degradanti, quali le torture o persino lÂ’uccisione dei propri parenti. Tutto ciò lascia in questi bambini un marchio spirituale, fisico e psicologico indelebile.

La risposta pastorale della Chiesa in questo ambito deve necessariamente muovere in diverse direzioni. La prima può concentrarsi sulle campagne a sostegno dellÂ’osservanza delle disposizioni di trattati quali la Convenzione sui Diritti del Bambino. LÂ’altra risposta riguarda la reintegrazione dei giovani combattenti nella comunità. La scuola e gli altri strumenti di formazione tecnica giocano qui un ruolo importante. La capacità da parte delle comunità di perdonare e di restituire umanità a questi bambini risulta indispensabile per poter nutrire qualsiasi speranza di un loro ritorno alla vita normale.

Eine versteckte Entwurzelung, die nicht ignoriert werden darf: Die Kinder-Soldaten.


Dieser Artikel zeigt eine pastorale Perspektive für eine besonderen Form der erzwungenen Entwurzelung: es handelt sich um das Phänomen der Kinder-Soldaten. Obgleich Kinder auch in der Vergangenheit immer wieder in den verschiedenen militärischen Rollen eingesetzt wurden, so werden sie heute durch die Technologie der modernen Waffen, besonders der kleinen, leichten, wiederstandsfähigen und schlagkräftigen, in die Lage versetzt, richtig zu kämpfen wie nie zuvor. Man schätzt, daß 300.000 Mädchen und Jungen unter l8 Jahren in 50 Ländern für das reguläre Heer oder die Revolutions-Armeen angeworben werden. Das ist natürlich ein Zuwiderhandeln gegenüber der zahlreichen internationalen Abkommen, einschließlich der Kinderrechts-Konvention, die von fast allen Staaten unterzeichnet wurde.

Die Anwerbung der Kinder wendet sich vor allem die leicht verwundbaren: die Straßenkinder, die alleinstehenden Minderjährigen, die Kinder in den Flüchtlingslagern und die Fremden. Andere werden aus den Schulen, von den Marktzonen und den religiösen Versammlungen geholt. Wieder andere werden durch Geldversprechungen und besonders durch die Macht, die durch Uniform und Waffen symbolisiert ist, angezogen.

Die Ausbildung der Kinder gleicht sehr der der erwachsenen Soldaten. Der Unterschied liegt in der Wirkung: ein noch nicht voll entwickelter Körper, eine leicht verwundbare Psyche; Mißgeschicke, die häufiger auftreten als bei den Truppen von Erwachsenen. Obgleich die Rolle der Jugendlichen sich anfangs in Aktivitäten der Unterstützung ausdrückt, so werden sie zum Schluß in richtige Kämpfe verwickelt, oft sogar in unmenschliche Angriffswellen, in Tötungs- Einsätze, in erniedrigende Handlungen, in Folterung und Mißhandlung, ja sogar in der Tötung der eigenen Eltern und Verwandten. Das alles hinterläßt in diesen Kindern eine tiefe, unauslöschliche spirituelle, körperliche und seelische Wunde.

Die pastorale Antwort der Kirche muß sich notwendigerweise in diesem Umfeld in verschiedenen Richtungen bewegen. Zuerst könnte man sich konzentrieren auf eine Kampagne zur Beachtung der Bestimmungen der Konventionen, wie die über die Rechte des Kindes. Eine weitere Antwort könnte die Wiederaufnahme dieser jugendlichen Kämpfer in die Gemeinde betreffen. Die Schule und die anderen Möglichkeiten der technischen Bildung spielen hier eine große Rolle. Doch äußerst wichtig ist, daß die Gemeinden es fertig bringen zu vergeben und alles tun, um diesen Jugendlichen ihre Menschlichkeit wiederzugeben, damit die Hoffnung genährt wird, ihnen eine wirkliche Rückkehr in ein normales Leben zu ermöglichen.